DETROIT -- Wednesday morning's latest dumping of snow on Comerica Park and downtown Detroit gave no hint that spring is on its way. The eventual sight of the moving truck cautiously backing down the snowy, slippery loading dock at Comerica Park provided some hope.
For many Tigers fans, the departure of the Spring Training equipment truck, bound for Florida, is the sign that Spring Training is around the corner. The fact that it came in the midst of yet another Michigan winter storm, this one stretching across most of the Midwest, made that corner quite tricky to maneuver.
It's a tradition for many baseball teams that signifies spring is on its way, but it's a longstanding tradition in many senses in Detroit. Clubhouse manager Jim Schmakel has done this for 36 years, including more than a decade with the same moving truck drivers. He has the process down to a science, making small tweaks each year.
"Years ago, we had one truck, probably didn't come close to filling it," he said, "and we didn't have any weight equipment. We had no video equipment."
Now, he has two trucks -- one devoted to baseball equipment, the other partly for luggage from front-office members and local media. And he has a busy offseason to get everything to the point that it's ready to go.
The process began shortly after the Tigers' dreams were dashed in the American League Championship Series last October, but didn't really pick up pace until the last couple weeks.
"When the last game ends," Schmakel said, "we basically will send all the players' stuff home, or we keep it. They might say, 'Keep my stuff. Bring it to Spring Training.' Then we store that in the back. And then gradually, we do all our inventories, because we've got a lot of different stuff, whether it's bats, balls, hats. We do a lot of inventory so we can get the orders done correctly for the season.
"It's just a gradual thing through the winter, and then it really peaks right after TigerFest. That's when we bring everything back in here and get it ready to put on the truck."
The end result was what surrounded him Wednesday morning -- stack after stack of boxes, plastic containers, duffel bags. What serves as a clubhouse for six or seven months out of the year looked more like a warehouse. Nobody could move three steps without running into a stack of items to move. The hallway that connects the manager's office was nearly stacked to the ceiling with boxes.
Most of that went on the equipment truck, which left Wednesday and is expected to arrive in Lakeland on Friday. The luggage truck is scheduled to leave Thursday and reach Lakeland over the weekend.
Trends have come and gone along the way. The workout equipment that used to furnish the weight room at Joker Marchant Stadium for the spring is now redundant with the facility's emergence as a year-round location for players to rehab. The video equipment that was rarely used in Spring Training a decade ago is now a group of essential instruments that make the trip.
Estimates include about 2,880 baseballs, 800 bats -- at least a dozen for each position player in camp -- and several hats. Schmakel guessed the total weight would come in between 70,000 and 80,000 pounds.
"Every year we think we're getting it tighter and tighter, and it seems like we're running out of room quicker and quicker," Schmakel said.
Some traditions, though, haven't changed. Though Schmakel packs special batting-practice jerseys, they're just for workouts. They still wear game jerseys in Spring Training contests, home and away. They still pack enough kitchen equipment and utensils to feed close to 100 people on those early Florida mornings. They still pack the same heated hat stretcher given to them by the former president of the New Era cap company nearly thirty years ago.
"I think I got it in the mid-'80s," Schmakel said "He was down there one spring and saw me trying to stretch with the hand [powered hat stretcher]. He said, 'I have something that might help you.'"
Last but not least, they have a bicycle for Schmakel to use to speed around the Tigertown complex and take care of issues. The bicycle ends up being seen more often than the traditional Spring Training golf cart.
Sometimes, they'll have leftover bats from players who are no longer in the organization that they'll bring down for younger players to try out. Sometimes, they'll have something a current player left in his locker from the previous season. The heart of the process remains the same.
So does the significance. And as the snow covered the streets of downtown Detroit, the reminder of spring was rarely more appreciated.
"Today, for me, [means] it's over with," Schmakel said. "We're getting ready to go to Florida. It's the lead up to today that's real busy."